Sunday, September 26, 2010

Bee Update: And Then There Were Two???

I wrote this a few weeks ago:
Yesterday started out as a beautiful late summer day at COTW, the light has changed to that of fall, but it was warm enough and sunny. It was a perfect day to work with the bees.

The hive currently has 2 hive components, both brood boxes, that basically serve as nurseries for new baby bees and a food supply for the adults, which they make by bringing nectar and pollen back to the hive. The have been this way essentially all summer. As fall approaches an established hive would be deep in honey production but mine is not quite there. A few months is extablished but not established enough. What they needed is a new component called a "super" which is a more shallow box with frames in it that the bees will use to make the honey in. Between the two brood boxes and this super I had to place what is called a "queen excluder" which ONLY allows everyone but the queen bee to move from the brood boxes to the super. The basic concept is to keep the queen bee in the brood box, aka nursery, area laying eggs to make more bees-her only purpose in her bee life. All of the other bees as workers can freely move up to the supers to work at making honey. Whatever they make can then be extracted and will be their sole source of food during the cold winter here in the hills of East Aurora.

So I suited up, started my bee smoker, grabbed my camera, new (and freshly painted white) super, and excluder. Upon arrival up at the hive, which is located in the Northeast corner of the property, nestled next to an apple tree that the deer use for shelter and just east of where our vineyard will someday go, I noticed that the hive was more active than I had ever seen. A lot of flight traffic in and out and generally a lot of bees hanging out "on the porch" of the hive. I figured that this was due to the fact that goldenrod is in full bloom right now and the bees are gorging on it in preparation for winter. It is one of the most productive times of year for honey due to this goldenrod (sidenote: depending on what nectar and pollen the bees use to make honey will determine its flavor: bees that live near apples = apple flavoring, near clover = clover honey, near orange blossoms = orange flavored, etc. You get the idea.) The amount of goldenrod out right now is a smorgasbord. So it seemed to make sense.
When I lifted the cover off the hive and looked into the top brood box, which was the second of two to be added; working from the bottom up, I was VERY surprised that they had used the frames very little up to that point if at all. It had been on a month or so and should have been well on its way. Peering down into the bottom (first) brood box it looked exactly as it should and was full of bees. I was starting to wonder whether or not I would be able to add the super if they hadn't yet even really used the second brood box.

As all this was happening I wasn't really paying attention to the bees coming and going from the hive. It still seemed like a lot. When I took a break from what I was doing I looked up and could not believe how many bees were flying around the surrounding area (especially within 50 yards west of the hive)! Something was not right. Why was this. They didn't seem upset that I was working with them yet seemed to have decided to leave the hive in mass exodus, but why?

I walked back to the barn after putting the super on and decided to check on the situation in a bit. Within 5-10 minutes I looked back toward the hive and most of the thousands of bees that were flying around had disappeared. I may not know much about bees yet but I knew that this was not good. There is no way that this many bees had returned to the hive so quickly but where were they? As I walked back to the area it became apparent that the bees were busily flying around a few bushes not far away, but far enough from the original hive. As I got closer I realized that the bees were swarming. Not one swarm but 3 separate swarms!

In the world of bees swarms are not good! They typically do this after leaving the hive due to overcrowding or turmoil (ie lacking a queen for one reason or another). Overcrowding was definitely not the issue so your guess is as good as mine. If they swarm and the bees are not reclaimed they can be lost forever once they move on. So what does one do when one's hive swarms? Call your bee mentor! Steve to the rescue! It was about noon when this problem occured and Steve said that he and his wife Cindy would be over about 5pm to see what he could do to help. This would also give them a chance to settle down and be easier to handle for transport, hopefully.

By the time Steve and Cindy arrived the three swarms had combined down to two, in two different bushes ~ 10 yards apart. But why? Steve tells me that when the bees swarm they do so, so as to surround the queen but why were there two swarms? Were there two queens? Who was queening the original hive? All questions that Steve and certainly not I, could answer. One of the fascinating things to see at this point was that these bees had calmed down to the point where they were one unit, of one purpose. Plenty of bees remained in the original hive but these thousands? had defected.
Steve wasted no time, gave each swarm a puff with the smoker which surprisingly didn't anger them. Typically this is done to calm them and make them workable but oversmoking can have the opposite effect. He tells me that these bees, in swarm, are groggy from gorging (think post Thanksgiving dinner) and typically easy to work with. So he expertly cut the whole branch off and in one fell swoop shook the first swarm into a new brood box with comb heavy frames (new frames are bare). He did the same with the second swarm and we closed the lid, gave them some honey to keep them busy and we waited. A few more bees were still trying to collect on the branches where the initial swarms were. Steve informed me that this is because the queen most likely left her smell on the branches and they were trying to find her.
That night before it got dark I placed a feeder on top of the new hive. This is a holding unit for a very concentrated sugar solution that will help them feed, build the new hive and develop a sense of place (read: we didn't want them to leave and swarm again, which could happen).

Today after work I took a walk up to the hives to evaluate how things were going 24 hrs later. Luckily all seems well with both hives (knock on wood). It's a little late in the season to be starting a new hive I suppose but I was left with little choice. Both hives seem happy and hard at work. Bees coming and going, air traffic control no doubt very busy!

And then there were two? At this point we don't know. We could leave the two hives and simply put we have two hives. The other option would be to rejoin the new hive with the old hive and let them work it out. To do so we could assume that each hive has its own queen and let them duke it out or we could find the queen in the new hive and kill her. Not sure what we will do yet but we have some time. Steve said we should wait until the honey flow is over. This occurs after the goldenrod is gone, typically after a September frost. I will keep you updated.

I had great photos of the swarms but had a problem downloading them and lost them. Sorry about that. This is a great image of what they look like:

Thanks to Steve and Cindy for saving the day! I wish it were as simple as taking roll call of our thousands of Italian bees. Luigi, Mario, Isabella, Giovanna, Massimo, Antonio, Marco, Franca, and on and on!


Linda Urbanski said...

Eric, love your bee story! My sister and her husband are bee keepers in Akron. I once watched them capture a swarm and create a new hive on a hot summer day. So interesting and always a learning experience. Very glad you're pursuing/protecting this important part of our food process!

wilson said...

The bee photos are incredible. The order and divine handiwork in one of their ornate little structures is “worth more than a complete but dry list of the fauna and flora of a town” (Thoreau).